The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.

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Some Thoughts on Secularism and the Public Sphere

Recently, it came to the fore that the Parti Quebecois were planning to try to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or religious headgear through the planned implementation of a “Charter of Quebec Values.” Much of the analysis of this Charter has focused on the fact that the PQ seems to be trying to capitalize on the xenophobia present in Rural Quebec.  However, this Charter forces us once again to reconsider the meaning of secularism and what interpretation of secularism is best, as defenders of the Charter of Quebec Values” have noted that this Charter is not an attack on any particular religious group, but rather a means of uniting Quebec much in the same way that Bill 101 helped to unite Quebec and this is very tied to the interpretation of secularism known as `Laicite`. `Laicite` is the idea that the private sphere is the sphere where religion should play its role, while in the public sphere all citizens should appear as equals devoid of any visible religious or cultural affiliation. In this way, `Laicite` privatizes difference in order to ensure that the state is free from religious influence. Since the Quiet Revolution in the 60’s in Quebec, it has been the dominant interpretation of what secularism means in Quebec.

It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this bill was not an attempt to marginalize particular religious groups from working in the public sphere, but rather that even if the Charter is being used in this way, there is a still an interpretation at its foundation that is worth considering,.

While `Laicite` has been a dominant model of Secularism in Europe and North America, it is not the dominant model, and in the Anglo- American world the more dominant model of secularism has been the idea that secularism does not require the privatizing of difference, but rather the diversifying of public space. Let’s call this the “Anglo- American Model.” On this interpretation, instead of preventing all public employees from bearing religious symbols we would allow them to wear any religious articles that they wanted to provided that these do not endanger other’s rights. The idea is that rather than banning all religious symbols from the public sphere, we should admit all religious symbols into the public sphere. This is still an interpretation of secularism as it stands in opposition to the formation of a State Religion.

Both models of secularism have difficulties, and I would like to take a moment to clarify them before making an argument in favour of either. On one hand, Laicite is problematic because by banning religious symbols we will certainly alienate many religious people whose political beliefs are intertwined with their religious beliefs. Now if a significant minority of people are religious and are alienated from the public sphere they will be less active in formal politics and this will likely mean their beliefs and interests will not be adequately taken into account in the formation of the public interest.  Somewhat ironically, while `Laicite` tries to create solidarity, it can have the negative effect of actually pitting certain groups against the public sphere and failing to be properly inclusive.  On the other hand, the “Anglo-American Model” is certainly inclusive enough, but it is problematic in that it seems difficult to figure out what the public interest is when all citizens come in bearing marks of distinct religions and cultures.  When there are conflicts between the values of the majority culture, and a religious minority whose value ought to take precedence? The “Anglo-American Model” of secularism on its own provides us with no answer to this question. In this way `Laicite` give us substantive values of citizen equality and solidarity, but fails to be inclusive, while the Anglo-American model is extremely inclusive, but makes it difficult to adjudicate what the common interest is, by bringing all of the fractious differences into the public sphere.  

It seems to me, that with a qualification, the Anglo – American model is superior to the `Laicite` model. The qualification is that it is understood that we do not value diversity in itself, but rather respect all equal citizen’s right to bear religious symbols and clothing in the public sphere. In this way the foundation of including religious symbols in the public sphere is not because diversity is inherently positive but respect for the equality of all citizens. This also gives the state and its citizens a barometer to adjudicate what is in the common interest and what is not, and what values ought to take precedence when conflicts occur. This solution certainly has its own problems, but it provides a substantial barometer as to what is in the common interest, and embodies an inclusive spirit that encourages all to see themselves as full citizens.